Written by Serie McDougal
White slave owners associated several general characteristics with Black men, including weak, docile, and ignorant. There were also certain characteristics that enslavers did their best to deny to Black males, including authority, family responsibility, and property ownership (Dancy, 2012). However, White respect for these characteristics was not so cut and dry. Therefore, Black male exceptionalism represented the circumstances under which Whites recognized and respected characteristics of Black men that were contrary to these generalizations. For example, Marable (1994) explains that Black men during slavery were not praised or rewarded for being assertive, they were rewarded by Whites for being accommodating. Black men who were considered exceptional were those who were industrious and ethical and assertive. However, to earn the respect of Whites, their assertiveness must not be used to challenge the established order or White privilege.
Black male assertiveness was acceptable as long as such Black men were pawns for Whites or that their assertiveness was used to support White power and privilege. For example, Black slave drivers were allowed to be assertive in forcing other enslaved Blacks to work and punishing their failure to do so. Athletic Blacks were allowed to use their physicality to entertain Whites. During slavery, Whites sometimes arranged events to force Black men to fight one another for entertainment. By all means, they were discouraged from fighting on behalf of other Blacks, particularly engaging in anti-slavery activism. Black male athletes engaging in political protest of police killings of Black males by kneeling during the U.S. National Anthem, are abandoning the model of Black male exceptionalism that has for so long reinforced White supremacy. President Donald Trump, in September 2017, made national headlines for redirecting focus away from police brutality, by framing football players as disrespectful to the U.S. flag and military (Hayward, 2017).
After admonishing football team owners to fire football players, who he described as “sons of bitches,” when they refuse to stand for the national anthem. In keeping with his point that the players are being treated too softly, Trump draws on the stereotype of the Black male as a bloodthirsty brute and super athlete. He does this alongside expressing his disfavor for football rules designed to minimize head trauma that may lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). ESPN analyst Kevin Blackistone suggested that one reason Trump promoted a form of football that disregards traumatic brain injury is because most of the NFL players are Black males. Moreover, Black males are overrepresented among football positions that suffer the greatest levels of CTE (Moye, 2017; Weaver, 2017). Although President Trump’s rhetoric was shifting national dialog about protests away from the original political issue, the theme that remained consistent was lack of value for Black lives, in this case, Black male lives in particular. His comments harken back to antebellum beliefs that Black males could bear more pain and were less vulnerable to physical stress than their White counterparts.
This racialized and gendered stereotyping has implications on Black males’ health status in general. James (1994) defines masculine self-reliance as a risk factor for John Henryism, a state of mental/physical vigor with a single-minded focus on hard work without regard to physical well-being. Some gender scholarship, according to Pass, Benoit & Dunlap (2014), exacerbates this problem in its repeated definition of Black masculinity as the hyper-version of every negative aspect of hegemonic White masculinity. Trump is using rhetoric that reinforces a great deal of gender scholarship about Black males as hypermasculine invulnerable beings. Black males’ break with racial gender stereotypes and exceptionalist expectations will always be seen as an ungrateful betrayal as President Trump has framed it.
Dancy, T.E. (2012). The brotherhood code: Manhood and masculinity among African American males in college. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.
Hayward, P. (2017, September 27). Trump unites his rivals by hijacking a courageous protest. The Daily Telegraph (London), p. 12.
Marable, M. (1994). The Black male: Searching beyond stereotypes. In R.G. Majors and J.U. Gordon (Eds.), The American Black male. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, pp. 69-77.
Moye, D. (2017, September 25). Donald Trump prefers violent football so more Black players get hurt: ESPN analyst. Huffington Post, np.
Weaver, C. (2017, September 27). MSNBC, huffpost: ‘Neanderthal’ Trump wants Black players to suffer. Newsbuster.org, np.